Friday, January 05, 2018

Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels (1975)

Belgium / France, 201 minutes
Director/writer: Chantal Akerman
Photography: Babbette Mangoit
Editor: Patricia Canino
Cast: Delphine Seyrig, Jan Decorte

It's appropriate, predictable, and a little depressing that the one appearance of a woman director in the top 100 movies of the big list at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? (presently barely making it in at all at #98) would be a landmark of feminist culture. The only other two movies directed by women in all of the top 300 (for a total representative ratio of 1.0%) are Beau Travail by Claire Denis at #155 and The Piano by Jane Campion at #211. Thus, with The Piano similarly defined by its feminist preoccupations, we might estimate that the only way 67% of movies made by women can be taken seriously is by bearing these themes, which are also certain commercial death. So it's another one of those traps—the kind that perpetually keep the people in power in power. Like credit in finance. Like patience in racial politics.

So it's not surprising that Jeanne Dielman (Delphine Seyrig in a bravura one-woman show), whose name and street address provide the title of this very long and slow movie, ultimately has to be taken as an angry woman. It's mostly hard to see, however, as she spends most of her time alone at home ostentatiously wearing a placid exterior with a housecoat, skirt, cardigan sweater, and low heels. She's a single mother raising a son of about 15. She was widowed six years earlier and now appears to be supporting herself as a prostitute in the afternoons. This is established in the first 30 minutes. In the scenes with men she is shown from the neck to the knees in profile, her head cut off by the frame. These scenes are as routinized as practically everything else in the picture. But they turn out to be only a small part, at least in terms of onscreen minutes.

What we see mostly is Dielman doing housework—not quite in real time, but pretty close. She rises early and shines her son's shoes. Then she prepares breakfast. After breakfast she does the dishes. She often goes out shopping and there are exterior scenes of Brussels. In the afternoon she prepares dinner. From the limited dialogue we see a weekly routine to these meals—a night for meatloaf (which we see her prepare in an extended scene), another night for veal cutlets (another scene), and so on. We also see her working on potatoes. We witness a thorough brushing of her hair—maybe two. There's another long scene where she's trying to get a cup of coffee with milk right.

As a creature of routine who has worked from home for years (and also likes a good cup of coffee with milk), I often saw myself in many of these scenes. For example doing the dishes—the water running and all the fussing work to get them clean. Waiting for the water to start running warm. And the time it takes. I was also familiar with the silence. I play music, as she does too for that matter, but like her not when I'm working in the kitchen or cleaning in other rooms. The silence is part of the movie's strategy of deceptive tranquility, as is the static camera, famously the most static in all film history to that point (no doubt it has been bested somewhere in the 40 years since). It. Never. Moves. ... Ever. Between the quiet, the stillness of the camera, and the reassuring routines, Jeanne Dielman carries a certain calm and peace, with normal and familiar human rhythms, like a Frederick Wiseman documentary.

But along about the third hour, when we see her squaring up to put on her housecoat for the fourth or fifth time and washing the dishes for the second or third time, the mind-numbing drudgery of it starts to dawn. We're two or three hours in, but she's been living this way for decades (much the way we have all been living for decades, though by and large I believe women are still stuck with most of the housework). By that point in this movie it is starting to become work simply to witness the work, again. Then, late in the movie, more and more, we start to realize she's not always doing anything. There's a very long scene, at least 10 minutes, of her sitting in a chair in her living room staring into space. The prolonged duration of these scenes itself creates tension. She's waiting for someone who is late, or she is disturbed about going out, or she is simply feeling tentative and within her thoughts. It's easy to project on such a still canvas, and what I see is depression. She has a nice life but it is repetitive and deadening, most of it, for the sake of some pleasurable evening moments with her son.

The ending bears this out. I've seen Jeanne Dielman three times now and I still don't know what to make of the ending. Spoiler alert if I must. The murder of one of her johns goes against the entire aesthetic the movie has spent literally hours establishing—it's not noisy, it's quiet like the rest of the movie, but it is so unexpected, so fast, dramatic, and irreversible. I have tried it out in my mind as comedy, as heavy-handed object lesson, as ... what? Dramatic arc? I can't make it square. Yet this last time I was struck by the very last scene, which follows the murder. Dielman is sitting at her dining room table by herself in the darkness thinking. A flashing blue light from outside that shows in her dining room has annoyed us all movie, and annoys us again for the eight or nine or 10 minutes of this scene. It's evening. Is it the same day? Where is her son? Is the corpse still in the other room? What is she thinking? What will she do? The only movement, a brief one, is that her head falls and hangs for a few seconds. Then she rights it again and continues to gaze thoughtfully. It's another still canvas easy to project on. Now I see her released from depression, probably only momentarily, as she is also and increasingly nagged by regret. Not for committing the murder, she couldn't stand the guy, but for opening herself to the consequences. Her life was not that good, perhaps, but now it's not going to get better. I wish she didn't have to go through any of it.

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